Holmes and I said goodbye to Mann and were soon on a train back to London. I had hoped I might be able to persuade Holmes to allow us lunch at a public house before our journey, but he was resolute that the afternoon held tasks enough that the time could not be allowed. When pressed as to what tasks he had in mind, he would not say. I therefore travelled back in something of an irritated mood. Not helped by a lingering sense of unease after my bizarre episode in the forest. I was still unable to understand what had happened. In my capacity as a doctor I have assisted a number of patients who had experienced fainting spells and blackouts, but try as I might I could pin down none of the obvious symptoms in my case. Unless, of course, it was an early sign of something much worse. Worrying about that wasn’t going to help me, however, so I pushed the concern from my mind. After all, it’s not as if I didn’t know an excellent doctor.
Once we arrived at Liverpool Street, Holmes bade me a goodbye and vanished into the crowds. It was hardly the first time I have been abandoned mid-investigation. Still, with the disorientation of earlier lingering I stood on the streets of the city and felt utterly adrift.
Around me Londoners moved at the only pace they know, hustling to and fro, darting past one another in a complex dance that always reminds me of schools of fish navigating around each other. Stood amongst them I was just another obstacle and was besieged on all sides, both by their impatient shoulders and also by the noise: the constant percussion of hooves on the streets, the shouts of the news vendors, the station announcements behind me. All with that low, bass line of general chatter running underneath it.
For a few moments I felt unable to move, as submerged by the life around me as I had been by the imaginary soil earlier.
What was happening to me? I felt one step removed from the world and unable to drag myself back into the sharp, defined city I knew and loved.
I raised my hands to my head, tapping at my forehead to test for a temperature. My skin was cool.
I wasn’t surprised, this didn’t feel like an illness. Perhaps I had been poisoned? I thought back to being in Ruthvney’s study, trying to imagine when I might have come into contact with something, perhaps even the same chemical that had affected him so markedly. I could think of no way, I had touched nothing, tasted nothing... If it had still been in the air then surely all three of us would have been equally affected?
“You just going to stand there?” asked a voice ahead of me. I looked up to meet the gaze of a news vendor, his ruddy skin a sure sign of years of over-drinking. It began with a wee dram to keep the chill off, I thought, then you got a real taste for it. “If you do,” he continued, “you’ll be trod underfoot for sure when the rush hour really starts. You think it’s busy now, you just wait until the offices close. Like ants they is, all running for cover.”
“I won’t be here then,” I said, feeling foolish, “just getting my bearings.”
“Oh yeah,” he replied, “bearings is it? I always keep mine close to hand.” With that he proved my earlier guess accurate by removing a hip flask from his pocket, unscrewing the cap and taking a big slug. “Bearings is easy to find if you always keep ’em in the same pocket.” He grinned at me and showed two large gaps in his front teeth. Diabetes, the medical man in me decided, probably caused by his diet, or lack of it... He held the hip flask out to me and, somewhat to my own surprise, I moved forward and took it. I drank a mouthful. Cheap rum, that burned rather than warmed. A man of the ocean I decided, revising my opinion, nobody but an ex-sailor would find comfort from this rough stuff. I handed the flask back and checked his wrists for tattoos as he took it from me. Sure enough, the fine curl of a rose stem peered out from beneath his cuff. Rum and tattoos, I thought, if he were any more obvious I would be able to smell the salt.
“Better?” he asked, and despite the roar in my stomach that spoke of indigestion to come I found that the answer was yes and told him so. “I reckon it’ll cure almost anything,” he said with a knowing twinkle in his eye, “or make it so you don’t much care. Liquor’s like a politician that way. It don’t always fix things but it makes sure you don’t notice what’s broke.”
“You might benefit from a square meal to soak some of it up every now and then,” I told him.
“Yes, doctor,” he said and for a moment I studied his face, nonsensically believing it might be Holmes in disguise. Of course it wasn’t, Holmes was about better business than this.
“Look after yourself,” I told him and walked off into the crowd.
Unlike my friend I did not have a bottomless bank account so I took the underground train rather than a cab.
The experience of descending beneath the streets into the tiled corridors of the underground stations is one that is both alarming and invigorating. There can be few that are not impressed with our capital’s subterranean travel system. As limited and restrictive as it may currently be, there is no doubt in my mind that it will one day expand, triumphing over its initial difficulties to become the preferred method for all. Its detractors point to thirty years of staggered development and the king’s ransom that’s been ploughed into it. When will they just give up? they wonder. But in my experience that’s something that the British in general and Londoners in particular have never been very good at. It’s just not in our nature to accept defeat – we bang our heads against a problem until it has the good grace to acquiesce.
Soon they say the lines will be filled with the new electric carriages, strange beasts that whine endlessly as they carry themselves to and fro beneath the city. Until then we are stuck with steam trains and the air in the tunnels is as poisonous as if we were burrowing through an alien world.
I worked my way through the crowds towards my platform, the thick smell of smoke and sweat clinging to me as I stood waiting for the next train.
I held onto my hat as the wind began to build, forced along the tunnels by the train as it approached.
“Enough to knock you off your feet so it is!” cackled a woman to my right. I offered her a polite smile as she eyed me up. Judging by the state of her painted face it was clear that she considered me a potential client. She gave a grin that showed yellow teeth stained by carmine lipstick, the smile of a clown or a cannibal. She pushed down her skirts as the wind grew even stronger, as if afraid they may blow up around her. I looked away, on the off chance that she was right.
A young couple stood hand in hand, a handsome pair, on a day trip I guessed. They had that awkward air of a fresh couple, excitement tempered by nerves. It made me think of my darling Mary, now lost to me, and I was somewhat ashamed to realise my eyes were watering as the oncoming train’s whistle howled. “Your feelings are showing, John,” she would have said, reaching out to dry the tears with a soft, gloved thumb. Like Holmes, she had always accused me of keeping my emotions so close to the surface you could read them from a mile away. I couldn’t argue with her, it was true enough. But then what Holmes frequently saw as a failure she saw as an asset. I am as yet undecided as to my own opinion on the matter.
The train pulled into the station and we climbed aboard. Sitting down on the upholstered bench, I looked at the wooden panelling of the carriage and was uncomfortably reminded of the inside of a coffin, all walnut, velvet and sweet, damp earth.
The young couple sat down across from me. The doxy a few feet to my left, a puff of cheap lavender toilet water erupting from the folds of her clothes as she rearranged herself on the seat. In front of her an ageing minister, his grey-and-white curls bobbing around his pink face as the train began its shaky journey, scanned the pages of his well-worn bible. Every now and then his lips quivered as he read the words, a soft, sibilant noise coming from him, like a dying breath, as he nearly spoke aloud. An elderly lady sat next to him, picking at loose threads in her bonnet, her face was vacant and dreamy as if she imagined herself to be anywhere but here. At the end of the carriage a pair of young lads laughed and cuffed each other playfully, standing up to “ride” the unsteady train as it shook on the rails.
I closed my eyes, and listened to the rattle of the wheels on the track, the eager chuffing of the engine as it ate its coke and its heart blazed hot within its iron cage. I could imagine it as a voracious creature, consuming all it could swallow, burrowing through the earth, a never-ending beast of appetite.
“It will kill us all,” said the doxy and I opened my eyes to look at her. She writhed against the bench as if being tugged by invisible hands, her back arched, her mouth opening and closing as if eating the air. “It will blow hard and sweep us from the earth,” she continued, “the Breath of God cannot be stopped, it curls hot in the lungs of the world.”
“Is nobody to help her?” I asked, reaching across to hold her thrashing arms.
“There is no help,” said the old minister, as if reading the words from his bible, “we’re all going to burn.”
“Let her die,” said the young couple, in impossible harmony, their eyes rolled up into their sockets, their mouths flapping open in perfect unison to let the words tumble out. “She is a harlot and not worth our attention, she deserves no more than the touch of hot pokers, the searing, cleansing fire on her diseased body.”
I continued to wrestle with the prostitute, made all the more determined by the callous words behind me.
“Oh God, John,” she said, and it was Mary’s voice, my poor dead Mary. “I can feel their hands, feel their black nails piercing the skin. Can nothing be done to save me?”
“Mary!” I cried, delirious now in the confined carriage that burrowed itself deeper and deeper into the ground.
“She’s ours,” said one of the young boys.
“We will play with her until she breaks,” agreed the other as they walked over to join us, “your little rag doll, your little Mary.”
The train shook violently and I lost my footing, letting go of the woman who had my deceased wife’s voice trapped inside her. I fell to the floor, rolling towards the far window as the carriage continued to buck and shake.
“Beware!” cried the old woman, unspooling great strands from her bonnet, strands I now realised were red and wet as she peeled herself like a Christmas orange. “Beware!”
Everyone on the carriage stood up, their mouths opening to reveal great black holes like the tunnels through which we travelled. Out of those tunnels a wind began to blow, whistling past teeth, billowing out cheeks, swelling their bodies to absurd, distorted balloons as it filled them.
The carriage filled with the unnatural wind, a wind that brought on its back the smell of the grave and of the bloodstained mud of the battlefields of my youth. It was the percussive wind of cannon fire, the raging storm pushed before the explosion of gunpowder, the storm of death, and I couldn’t bear the thought of inhaling it. If it entered me, contaminated my body with its funeral taint, I was convinced I would be forever lost.
I pulled myself to my feet, yanked down the window and breathed deep of the black smoke that flooded the carriage.
“’E’s gone mad!” someone shouted, and that was enough to bring me back to my senses. The hands of the young man yanked me back from the window even as the old minister pulled it closed, coughing in the clouds of smoke that I had allowed into the carriage from the confined tunnel outside.
It was one of the young lads who had spoken and I held my hands up, trying to reassure my travelling companions that I was now as restored to sanity as they clearly had been. But they knew nothing of my delusions, that much was clear from the startled looks on their faces. They were all sat as they had been before I had closed my eyes, looking on me with a mixture of terror and pity. My eyes met those of the prostitute and there was no trace of Mary in their open mockery.
“Could tell ’e weren’t right the minute I set eyes on ’im,” she said, looking me up and down with open contempt as the train slowed to pull into the next station. “’E’s like a man I used to know.” A client, I thought, perhaps uncharitably. “Used to scream the ’ouse down on a full moon so he did, right off his onion, mad as Swiss eggs.”
As the train came to a halt I grabbed my hat and cane and dismounted, unable to travel any further with them, too embarrassed to sit in their company. I pushed my way past the people wanting to get on and made a run for the surface. I still coughed, the sharp sting of blood at the back of my throat, the thick, poisonous smoke clinging to my insides.
I came up near Regent’s Park and I made my way there, to sit a while on one of the benches and regain my breath and composure.
Had I fallen asleep? No. I was sure I had not. Then what was the explanation for two such experiences in one day? What was happening to me? I was only too aware of the similarity between what I had experienced and the surreal visions described by Dr Silence. Had I been influenced by him somehow or – a much worse proposition and one that did not sit well with my rationalist beliefs – had we shared a similar visitation? I resolved to observe Dr Silence later that evening and try to make my mind up about him.
Eventually I walked through the park and along Baker Street. I would tell Holmes about what had happened – he would treat the account with utter scepticism, naturally, but I was hopeful that he might be able to present a logical solution. Try as I might, I certainly couldn’t.
On my return, it soon became clear that conversation with Holmes would have to wait. He had returned home while I was out, a note pinned to the mantelpiece with a blowdart: “Meet at the station, bring your revolver.”
Typically erudite, I thought, screwing the note up and casting it into the fire.
I went to pack.